Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Alienation Effect? Part 2

Forewarned is forearmed: this post does connect pretty closely to what I wrote the other day, so if you haven't read that one yet, you may want to have a look. This will still be here when you get back!

Okay. If I told you that I thought part of the reason these old games, and these, well, these new but old-fashioned games, have such a hold on me, was that there's something to them that reminds me that they are games, what would you say?

Would you think that that was weird? Would you say that you prefer an "immersive" or a "realistic" gaming experience?

Well, hear me out.


I think more often than not we're conditioned to think that an entertainment should be involving, so that when we come to a game, for instance, we expect something that's simply going to engage us and make us forget that we are just playing a game, whether it does so with mindless action or gripping drama. Some people, maybe most people, think gaming is a hobby or a distraction, and what they demand from gaming proceeds from that assumption.

There may be another way to approach games, and I have an acknowledgment to make at this point. You probably know that this "alienation effect" thing isn't my term. It was actually coined by Bertolt Brecht (Verfremdungseffekt in Brecht's native language). It refers to the distancing Brecht thought ought to occur during the production of a play.

That's not really the usual deal. The classic Aristotelian theory of drama from the Poetics—the only part that's left to us focuses on tragedy—says that the aim of a play is to engender an emotional response in the audience, something that can't happen unless the audience is drawn in, its sympathies taken over by the events displayed on the stage.

This seems like a natural direction for Aristotle's theory, considering that some of the most famous plays from the century or so before he wrote were the intense tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not to belabor the point, but one of the primary concerns of these plays, and one of the elements you'll remember longest from reading them or seeing them performed, is the degree of suffering in them.

Aristotle said that we could sympathize with this suffering by watching it take place, and this experience would then cleanse us of our own negative emotions: this is the effect of catharsis you always hear about with respect to Aristotle.

Anyway, to get this thing moving back toward video games, Brecht (who fell in the midst of a whole gaggle of like-minded playwrights, though he's the best known of them) disagreed that this was the most appropriate way for drama to operate. He believed that a detached, intellectual response was preferable, and so he and his colleagues created what is usually called epic theater, a form of drama that acknowledges its artificiality and tries to keep the audience aware that it is watching a play. This involves dispensing with the whole pretense that the play is a series of actual events that the audience is watching unfold. Actors break the fourth wall continuously, addressing the audience and making use of the entire theater; sets appear just a bit unnatural; summaries of or comments on events are often read out or projected as text.

You can imagine how this eats away at the suspension of disbelief! Brecht worked to cultivate a sense of disbelief in his audience.

And so the audience is detached, alienated, distanced, estranged from the actors. Or the actors from the audience. Either way, this is how the alienation effect works.


A game like Left 4 Dead or Gears of War shows that the search for the right kind of immersion in video games continues, by and large, to coincide with the search for the right degree of realism. Games of their ilk, I think, are the inheritors of the Aristotelian theory of artistic products. Now, I would say this model has become less monolithic than it used to be, but it's still the dominant paradigm. Console games—console games!—now display in resolutions up to 1080p. 3D rendering is the standard approach to video game graphics. Many (maybe most; the statistics aren't crucial) games are presented in a first- or limited third-person perspective. All of these methods of presentation, I think, are employed in order to make games feel more realistic and thus immersive. These qualities aren't inherently connected at all, as I'll show, but I think that designers have both of them in mind when they produce the usual modern game, or at least the usual triple-a blockbuster game.

It really bothers me that I'm oversimplifying so much when there are perfectly good examples of games that don't fit on either side of the artificial dichotomy I'm setting up at all. Madworld will probably be one of the more important Wii releases of 2009, for better or worse, but it's presented in highly stylized black and white graphics that aren't all that "realistic." Games like Super Mario Galaxy push for something approximating the same sort of high-res beauty that games on the more powerful consoles achieve, but they bear only a passing resemblance to anything in the real world. But I still think games like that belong more in the big-budget category. And I love games like this. Still, I always find myself drifting towards games that don't uphold the same aesthetic standards, whether they're just too old to compare, like Zelda II or Ghouls 'n Ghosts, or deliberately out of step, like Mega Man 9 and Super Paper Mario. The latter aren't just games that try for simple or even archaic graphical styles, they are also two-dimensional platformers (more or less, in the case of SPM): they're breaking away from the more prevalent philosophy altogether.

And it's these older design values I really want in a game, I think. I still want to play games cast in the newer mold, but, all things being equal, I'll always take the original-looking indie side-scroller over the new big-budget 3D game.

I thought the reason for this might be nostalgia. These were, after all, the prevailing design values of the games of my childhood. And you know, nostalgia is almost right.

But it isn't quite right. It's really the alienation effect I want, and something extra.


Though games of the 8-bit era seemed adequately expressive at the time, playing through one now can create overwhelming levels of what might be considered the video game version of the alienation effect. The NES displayed at a resolution of 256 x 240; the Atari VCS displayed at 192 x 160! Under typical circumstances, the NES displayed up to 25 colors at a time. Real 3D graphics were a generation away, and they wouldn't become really popular until the mid-1990s. This meant that the 8-bit games I came to know before any others had few colors and simple graphics. They had two-dimensional worlds—and the games that didn't were usually disasters. They were immersive, sure, but only on their own terms, and in ways that I suspect are hard to appreciate for newer gamers raised on newer games.

For example, try to imagine playing the game pictured above, Haunted House for the VCS, if you're too young to have had the pleasure. According to me, Gamespy and, I think, Retronauts (episode 29), it's a forerunner of the survival horror genre. In 1985 or so, when I was playing it, it was terrifying. That may be partly because I was a small child, but it was also because my experiences with the VCS had taught me to think that this was what video games were supposed to be like. Without anything more refined to compare to it, I bought into the illusion and became a willing participant in the VCS' blocky charade.

But early console games had a lot of what Alexander Galloway, drawing on the language of film criticism, calls non-diegetic elements, pieces of a game that exist outside its narrative, pieces that theoretically could detract from a game's illusion. These games were still incorporating the conventions of the arcade, where the point of a game wasn't to grant players any sort of closure but to extort as much money from them as possible. In the early 1980s in particular, home games were making a gradual, often clumsy transition from this arcade-like gameplay model to a more teleological one where the player had a clear goal to work toward. As a result, many games had score counters in one corner of the screen, and some, like Street Fighter II, still preposterously invited you to enter your initials, as if you were going to leave your console on all day and have hundreds of people over to marvel at your skills.

Even as some games moved away from the arcade gameplay model, they shed or adapted at least some of their now extraneous non-diegetic elements. Score counters became less common, certainly in the action and adventure genres; abrupt transitions between levels were phased out and replaced with more natural overworld/underworld systems and world maps; even the conceit of multiple lives was dropped in favor of a single life in some genres. Some fairly recent games have continued these trends to such an extent that what non-diegetic elements they retain have withered like vestigial organs: the Grand Theft Auto games repackage the older level concept as small missions that take place across a single city or geographic swath; Shadow of the Colossus has restricted its non-diegetic information to a compact, unobtrusive lifebar and health meter.

I'm making a big deal out of this process because I want to make completely clear what sorts of things I think are being removed or minimized in games at the one end of this spectrum I'm creating. And yes, creating this spectrum is my way of misrepresenting the way designers think about games. I'm telling this lie so that I can make a broad point, but every artistic theory is a shoe that doesn't quite fit.


So what I've been trying to do all along is to point to two groups of elements in video games that contribute to this special kind of alienation effect. One is the narrower category of non-diegetic elements, and the other is the less defined category (more like a misshapen, taped-up cardboard box) of "obsolete" game parts, things like 2D perspectives, level-by-level structures, and outdated aesthetics. I can't think of many games that can be made without using at least a few parts from these two boxes, but the more of these parts a game uses, the further it gets from the "realistic" ideal, and the less the game maintains the illusion of a perfectly, naturally, and consistently realized world—the more, in other words, it "admits" to being a game.

Voilà: there's the alienation effect, the deliberately provoked sense the player has that she or he is playing a game. It doesn't—doesn't!—preclude a sense of immersion, but it is an intellectual rather than an emotional response. It is a moment where your involvement in the game is disrupted, even slightly, while the designer pulls back the façade a little and reminds you, again, that this is a game.

Because games aren't a, I don't know, a technology, like computers, that move off into the future, always improving, always advancing. They're pieces of art. Get the hell off my blog if you disagree ;) As such, they have a history, and there is no reason they can't dip into that history for inspiration. In fact, I think what I'm discovering about myself as a gamer, the reason that I like old games and old-style games, is that I'm a little more interested in games' history than their future. I'd rather experience games that are either a part of gaming history or, even better, that situate themselves in that history and express their appreciation for it openly.

What I want is the intertextual games like Braid, with their Donkey Kong homages. I want the 2.5D remakes of sidescrolling classics, the Bionic Commando: Rearmeds and the Castlevania Dracula X Chronicleses. I want games that are almost too retro, like Bit.trip Beat. I want the Paul's Big Adventures, the games that exist just to subvert and parody the medium (though it would be great if they could be more interesting than the coconut-gathering minigame in No More Heroes). I want to play video games, and I don't just want to play video games; I want to play video games that are about playing video games.

That's the alienation effect: that feeling you get that you're in on something with the designer, that the two of you have something in common that this game is a way of getting at. The sense that the two of you are participating, almost, in a dialogue about what games are. And ultimately, it isn't about the mechanics or the aesthetics, though those retro stylings almost invariably help. It's about games presenting themselves as games. I know there are going to be some mistakes. But this is what I want.

The Pong screen is from Screen Play, a blog at The Haunted House screen comes from The Braid screen is from MTV's Multiplayer blog. The Bit.trip Beat screen is from WiiWare World.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Alienation Effect? Part 1

So, today's malarkey comes from an old post I never finished up on my (not very developed) 1up blog. About a year ago, I finished a play-through of Super Paper Mario with my wife, and a few things occurred to me during and after that experience that I thought I'd discuss here.

So, my wife is not a huge video game fan. Certainly she enjoys them. And damn, is she ever good at some of them. She worked up perfect 100% ratings on every single level in Yoshi's Island back when that was a "current game," which really is no mean feat. The Mario All-Stars saves left over from her junior high years tell the tale of a person who once racked up some 70 (!) extra lives in between levels of Super Mario Bros. 2 before finishing the game. When asked about Super Mario World, she nonchalantly claims not to remember having gotten very far in it, yet one of her saves from that game preserves a completely (yes, 100%) unlocked world map. She's been all the way through A Link to the Past and gathered every item, even the ones you don't need and have to really look for. All four bottles! Everything. I just mean that she doesn't lack for skill, and when she starts a game, she finishes it—all the way. But I think the angle she comes at video games from must be a bit different from mine.

Ugh, now that's going to sound like an awful pun. The thing is that she just doesn't always react well to real 3D games. When The Wind Waker came out, she gamely played along with me up to the Forsaken Fortress, where of course, after countless moblin run-ins, she swore off Zelda games forever, until I played past that and let her try her hand at the Forest Haven. She found the little interior area around the Deku Tree completely disorienting, and at that point her patience really did run out. Fair enough. For someone who's never really adjusted to 3D games, that is a confusing, monotonous area, filled as it is with water, branches, lily pads, floating lights--not the easiest place for getting your 3D sea legs.

"3D sea legs." What does that remind me of? Oh yes! It reminds me that my wife has played and loved Escape from Monkey Island, as well as Grim Fandango and Eternal Darkness, and she's perfectly adept at those games. She's also pretty good at Grand Theft Auto III, and she sort of likes that one. Maybe the problem lies in the constant (and sometimes drastic) shifts along the height axis in games like The Wind Waker? I mean, it is true that Eternal Darkness, Escape from Monkey Island, and Grim Fandango work from a fixed perspective, so that might explain those, but what about GTA3? Maybe the driving is intuitive.

Anyway, I'm on the other side of the spectrum. I'll play almost anything if I have the right console/hardware and enough time (guess which of those is more problematic). I was playing King's Quest II with my mom when I was still pre-literate, really before I had enough of a mental visual dictionary to translate the blocky graphics into real objects in my head. I mean, I did okay for the most part, but there were some things on that KQ2 screen I could not comprehend. Trident? Seahorse? Cauldron of chicken soup?

(Okay, I'm being disingenuous. That's not chicken soup.)

I've played lots of stuff from almost every genre that's arisen since then, and I'm at least okay at most of them. Well, I love, but absolutely suck at, Civilization. But I don't have a fundamental inability to play this or that type of game.

Well, my wife definitely has a preference for old-tyme side-scrollers (and top-down adventures). Super Paper Mario was like a dream come true for her. She is thrilled about Fez, and I can't wait to see if she likes Cave Story when it comes to Wii (I haven't tried her on the desktop experience, though perhaps I should). I'm also going to play Braid when it comes to PC, and I think she'll like that, too. And I love side-scrollers and other 2D games too, but I've played and loved so many other kinds of games that I would have thought I had no particular preference for the older style.

But you know what? I think I might.

When we bought our Wii a year and some months ago, I logged lots of time on Twilight Princess and Metroid Prime 3 and Super Mario Galaxy and Resident Evil 4 and all that, but I really found myself spending just as much time—probably lots more time—playing Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts, Super Metroid, Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda II, and other mostly 16- and 8-bit games. I played those games for inordinate, embarrassing amounts of time. Then I bought a PSP and, between that and my DS, I've barely been able to claw my way out from RPGs and Metroidvanias (sorry!).

So before I close this first installment out (I have much more to say, as well as an actual theory to posit, in part 2 and, if it comes to that, part 3), I'll just pose this question: what's going on here? Am I giving in to nostalgia? Have I spent so much time playing games with my wife that I'm picking up her preferences? Or is it something else entirely?

And of course I could just be reading too much into this. It was huge for me just to be able to play old games on a real TV screen again.

Today's top image (a dizzy bokoblin to represent my wife getting dizzy from playing WW) comes from The KQ2 image is from

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"The medium is the message" Part 2 of 2

Previously on Nuclear Houseplant:

"I'm not the kind of person who's going to say that something like that is going to be a failure no matter what. But that's not to say that there's no such thing as hubris."

"'I just want to go crazy and shoot some shots that make me remember why movies are badass.'"

"His is not a delicate touch"

"Watchmen, the film, is pretty okay. And that's all."

"I assure you, I['ll] spoil the hell out of book and film."

Back in July 2008, when I tried to watch The Dark Knight with only moderate success, surprise! I got to see a trailer for the upcoming Watchmen movie. This was the first Watchmen theatrical trailer, and maybe it's because I'm cynical and jaded, but I was underwhelmed. Of course, I was sitting next to a man—a grown man—who hooted gleefully after the trailer and also every few seconds during the armored car chase scene in the feature. Gleeful hooting didn't seem like the right response to Watchmen, somehow, especially not when, in typical Hollywood fashion, all the trailer gave us was mind-numbing visual stimulation, most of which was unrepresentative of the chatty-kathy graphic novel I'd read. The trailer also had one of those crazy things Rorschach's always saying, delivered without the ironic detachment Alan Moore uses, seeing as how he's not, you know, a psychotic fascist. I mean, maybe it was just that hooty guy's fault I didn't like the trailer, but I don't really think so.

I'll concede that there was some (scant) reason to hope. Strangely, the Watchmen trailer featured the The Smashing Pumpkins song "The Beginning is the End is the Beginning," the slower variation of "The End is the Beginning is the End," which was the Batman & Robin music video that was all over MTV during the summer of 1997. I thought this was probably just a really, really unfortunate music selection, but I was also hopeful: maybe it was actually a brilliantly self-conscious gesture at satire, a sort of subtle announcement that this was going to be the movie that once and for all broke the comic book movie mold and delivered on its promise. Watchmen was going to make everything else look like Batman & Robin! Something like that, anyway. There was also the sort of neat clock-like sound of the drum machine in the background of the song, which slows gradually, and continues to wind down, as the song (and trailer) ends. Just like Watchmen! It ends and doesn't end!

Mostly, though, I thought what I usually do when something I like is getting the movie treatment: this was going to be a bad Watchmen, watered down for mass audiences, robbed of its essential meaning, detoothed. A cinematic-commercial experience complete with Kubrick sets consisting of rapists and mass murderers (the guy in the middle's all right).

I sat back and waited for several months. "Waited" is too strong a word, honestly, because I didn't really think much about it.

Then the past couple of months rolled in, the Doomsday Clock advanced (not the real one, just a metaphorical one), and we were only a few weeks away from release! People started talking about Watchmen! Watchmen had become a title people knew! I can't remember now if it was around that time or when the Wired article hit, but at some point, I realized that Watchmen had miraculously gained a broader following over the past several months, on the strength of a few movie trailers, than it had done in the previous twenty years on the strength of, um, itself.

And that must explain why Alan Moore hates film adaptations.

That doesn't really matter, though. I said it in the previous part of this thing, and I'll say it again: when your work is published, it's no longer just yours. "Your work" may be broadly interpreted, too: cf. "WWJD?" (or, even more laughably, Lord's Gym) merchandise, Che Guevara stuff, and Charles Manson t-shirts, just to name a few. If you've produced, undergone, suffered, and/or done something significant, evil, fascinating, and/or tragic, you can and will be trivialized. Alan Moore's been in the line for some time now, because a respectable chunk of his copious corpus has been run through the machine, but it's a long, long line, and we are a people with an insatiable appetite.

At least he gets the satisfaction of knowing his predictions were vindicated. I mean, I guess that's one way of interpreting that picture.

All of this is just my attempt at putting up walls, shielding myself from any accusations of fanboyism. I'm not a fanboy; I don't owe Alan Moore a Wookiee life debt, and I'm not here to mourn how, oh, man! the greatest book of all time has been damaged by the predations of Hollywood. I do want to show you just a few of the ways the Watchmen movie misses the point of Watchmen, which is a pretty good book.

One important tool to have in the box when you read anything by Alan Moore is a sense of detachment. You'll be needing that for when Moore switches narrators on you, or when he has someone really unpleasant, possibly even unreliable, telling you what the world's like. In his review of Watchmen, Anthony Lane makes this observation:

You want to hear Moore’s attempt at urban jeremiad? “This awful city, it screams like an abattoir full of retarded children.” That line from the book may be meant as a punky retread of James Ellroy, but it sounds to me like a writer trying much, much too hard; either way, it makes it directly into the movie, as one of Rorschach’s voice-overs. (And still the adaptation won’t be slavish enough for some.)

I have to hand it to Anthony Lane: his harsh criticism of the book suggests he's actually read it, at least sort of, unlike the mass of critics who just give it high but generic praise. Take, for instance, Joe Morgenstern in the News Corporation's The Wall Street Journal: "The source material, a graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is a work of unusual intricacy, visual power and narrative ambition. Doing full justice to such a classic in a single movie was clearly impossible ..." I will give David Edelstein of New York Magazine credit, because he's clearly read the book, and he's aware that Rorschach is "a grotty right-wing nihilist in a stocking-cap mask." Probably we oughtn't confuse Moore's voice with Rorschach's. If you want Moore's voice, you might find it in this editorializing moment:

But maybe Lane's not deliberately confusing Rorschach's perspective with Moore's perspective, and if it's just Moore's prose that's on trial here, I'll be the first to admit that his writing is far, far from unassailable. What Lane does, though, is to attribute a sadistic quality to Moore that I think is misplaced:
The problem is that Snyder, following Moore, is so insanely aroused by the look of vengeance, and by the stylized application of physical power, that the film ends up twice as fascistic as the forces it wishes to lampoon. The result is perfectly calibrated for its target group: nobody over twenty-five could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under eighteen should be allowed to witness it.

This is the line Lane takes with his mischaracterization of Moore, whom he also lumps in with the writers of those endless "shelves of cod mythology and rainy dystopias, patrolled by rock-jawed heroes and their melon-breasted sidekicks," who is the sort of satirist whose work "should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear—deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation—is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along."

I don't care about defending Moore, but I am outing Anthony Lane as a medium snob, right here, right now. The guy plainly hates comic books. Oh, sure, there are those "masterwork[s], such as 'Persepolis' or 'Maus,'" but up against those other shelves of crap, those sorts of books can only be the exception to the rule. If only we had someone with Lane's sophisticated tastes to save us from these purveyors of penny dreadfuls! "Incoherent, overblown, and grimy with misogyny, Watchmen marks the final demolition of the comic strip, and it leaves you wondering: where did the comedy go?" Let me reiterate: Anthony Lane read Watchmen, no question. His editor asked him to read it, or perhaps he selflessly took it upon himself as research for his review. He read it perfunctorily, at least its first five or ten pages, and he resented every minute of it. Maybe if it'd been more like Snuffy Smith, he'd have enjoyed himself.

The larger problem, to get away from his disdain for this still ghettoized medium, is that Lane is also transparently conflating Watchmen, the book, with the new movie. They really aren't the same thing. I just mentioned Lane's imputation of a sadistic quality to Moore. It really isn't there. I can't blame anyone for seeing it in the movie, though; I certainly did. As Karen Green pointed out in a recent installment of her ComiXology column, the violence of a comic book movie, particularly a comic book movie that's based on a violent comic book, is inevitably going to be greater than the violence in the original work. Karen paraphrases Scott McCloud: "much of the action occurs in the interstices, and we complete the snapshot captures of the action, letting our brains fill in the balance." The representation on screen of that frame-by-frame violence proceeds at a pace and for a duration over which we have no control, unlike with a comic book, and there are the added problems of motion, sound, and audience to consider. The art style of Watchmen the book is also consistent with other comic books of the eighties or, for that matter, the sixties. Not to say that Dave Gibbons' work isn't distinguished, but the colors in particular are relatively bright, and the overall presentation makes the scenes of bloodshed disturbing without being physically sickening. The conversion to live action inevitably makes the violence and the gore more affecting, even when the blood in the movie looks more like some sort of black ichor than blood (and yes, colorlessness in the movie is a frequent annoyance).

I'm not a squeamish viewer, and I've watched (and enjoyed) many films where I know the violence was excessive in some sense. This can be a legitimate aesthetic choice, as it often is. But the representation of graphic violence in film is always at least a bit problematic, because, again, unlike comic books, where the reader doesn't have to endure the violence for any length of time, a movie creates a situation where the viewer is wrapped up in the violence, is in some ways even complicit with it, and is certainly invited to respond to it. There is graphic violence in both versions of Watchmen, but Alan Moore presents the violence and the bloodshed in his book with characteristic detachment. He isn't callous or unconcerned; he simply shows the violence, and that's all. Zack Snyder is the sort of director who, with no real artistic reason that I can discern, lavishes attention on bloodshed, slowing it down and lingering over it.

And he actually enhances the violence: you may remember the scene in the book where Rorschach chains the pedophile/murderer to a stove, throws him a hacksaw, and then douses the man's house in kerosene and leaves him to determine his fate. It's a dark scene (in fact, it's made clear in the book that this is the scene where Rorschach "snaps"), but it's harder to take in the movie. There, Rorschach tells the man, who's just asked to be turned over to the authorities and given "help," that people receive the benefit of imprisonment, and animals have to be put down. Then he takes a cleaver which he embeds in the man's head, several times, right before our eyes. Aside from the charming observation, not in the book (there, Rorschach makes comments that implicitly connect himself, as a member of humanity, to the pedophile), there's this prurient fascination with the act of killing. It comes out in the scene where Rorschach throws hot fryer oil on a fellow prisoner, whom we watch as he screams and melts for several seconds. Rorschach shouts that it isn't he who's locked in with the prisoners, but they who are locked in with him. In the book, he states this coldly, and the line appears in a caption, reported via secondary narration, divorced from its context. Every aspect of the book's presentation at this point invites a cool appraisal of these events. I'm sorry to say, though, that the audience at the viewing of Watchmen I attended actually cheered for Rorschach. It reminded me of Sin City a few years before; my audience at that film really loved the scene where Hartigan dismembers Elijah Wood and ties him to a tree to be devoured by dogs.

That's what I think is wrong with Snyder's handling of violent scenes. I don't in the least mind violence in movies, but I think there are inherently distasteful ways of dealing with it, or there are ways that invite your audience not just to respond to it in a strong way, which is a good thing, but to enjoy it, which I find troubling. And maybe that's the kind of challenging content you'd expect from a really artistic film, but Zack Snyder is not that director, and Watchmen is not that film, certainly not this Watchmen.

A frequent critique of the film is that it's imitative of the original to a fault. If only! The direction, the composition of the film, is like amateur hour compared to the deliberate and in fact meaningful framing of the story in the book. I realize this is a long post already, so I'll only focus on a couple of examples. First of all, Watchmen is almost a textbook in how to exploit the possibilities of the comic book medium. The themes of simultaneity—of non-linear time, of time being lost and time being stopped and time running out—and of interconnection run throughout the book and intertwine at points, and there is simply no more appropriate medium to present this, that I can think of, than a comic book. As (again) David Edelstein observes, "Reading Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s splashy, blood-drenched superhero graphic novel Watchmen is a delirious experience—the eye races forward, circles back, and darts around the panels while the brain labors to synthesize the data." Comic books offer the possibility of this studious reading, re-reading, and what? de-reading? Time is effectively negated, and the reader can flip backwards or look up or to the left at another panel, and even if the reader has no desire to do that, there are a few occasions where Moore and Gibbons do it for her by recycling old panels and jumbling them into a confused mess. Dr. Manhattan laments the fact that Laurie Juspeczyk can't see time as he can, but we do. This is what I think Brian K. Vaughan, in his quote from the Wired article, means when he says, "The medium is the message." Taking Watchmen out of its native medium was a risky decision artistically, and no attempt has been made to adapt its central conceits, so perfectly fitted to that medium, to its new celluloid context. This slavish imitation critics are referring to is a hoax: Watchmen, the movie, if it did what it already does quite a bit better, would be like one of those child prodigies who can play Mozart flawlessly. The notes are right, but the music isn't there. There's just something to be said for the appreciation and the discernment that can only come with experience, and that's the quality most obviously missing from Snyder's adaptation.

On the contrary, I talked yesterday about the glaring immaturity of many of Snyder's insertions, particularly the music, and I won't elaborate further. Well ... I'm trying to resist ... okay, some of the imagery is almost irresponsible. I thought the graphic reenactment of the JFK assassination was pretty indulgent, for instance.

Speaking of imagery, there really isn't much in this film. There are a few clocks. Okay. There aren't enough to convey the importance of time in the story: time running out on the Doomsday Clock, time suspended from Dr. Manhattan's perspective, time as sort of a canvas for the narrative, all of that. There also aren't enough to tie scenes together visually, and there aren't enough to provide the sort of seamless transitions that occur throughout the book. This is another thing the book does brilliantly, and it wouldn't have been difficult for film to follow suit. There are constant shifts between completely different scenes in the book that are facilitated and smoothed with clever transitions. A shark's head in the pirate story (axed, but coming out on DVD soon!!) becomes a pink triangle on a poster for a lesbian political group. A field of stars becomes a collection of watch gears arrayed on a black cloth. Even in the few instances where the film does take these transitions from the book, they're poorly done: the ink blot that turns into Rorschach's mother and her john bears no resemblance to the latter image because of the way the framing's mishandled.

I never meant to make this survey exhaustive, and now I'm realizing that I could criticize the movie for several more paragraphs, so I'll call it a day here. I don't mean to say that this is a truly awful movie. I'm fairly sure it's not a good movie, especially not in comparison to the book (in the absence of it it would be much better), but if you don't demand the thematic richness of the comic book, it should convey the material suitably for your needs. It would have been nice if the movie had played with its own medium the way the comic book does, and it's true that this is the latest in a long line of comic book movies, and the genre is ripe for some deconstruction of the sort Moore and Gibbons engage in in Watchmen, but that's not what this movie does. It's basically in line with the genre. Lots of action, if that's your thing. It's okay in its way, I suppose, but it definitely doesn't justify its existence, and it never seemed particularly necessary or even desirable.

That's my take. Call me a fanboy, but I think I've gone beyond nitpicking to show how Watchmen really is an inferior reproduction. I have no disrespect for anyone who enjoys it; I'm glad, personally, that I got to see it, because there is something there to like. It suffers from the comparison to its source, though, and not just in ways that don't matter.

Monday, March 9, 2009

"The medium is the message" Part 1 of 2

Note: I am so sorry, but this is only the first half of a longer treatment of Watchmen. I am currently working on the second section, which goes into greater depth and focuses on how the film misses several of the points of the original book, but the past week has been insane, and I wanted to have something to post in the meantime, so:

Let me say one thing as a prolegomenon: this posting is not a fanboy rant. I'm not really a fanboy, though I do like Watchmen, sc. the book, a great deal. I understand Alan Moore's frustrations over the way his work has been treated in the past, but then again, once your art has been exhibited or published, it doesn't just belong to you anymore (I'd argue it doesn't even mostly belong to you), and while, unfortunately, Hollywood isn't on balance a good steward of other people's stuff, these are the realities of creating a mass-audience work. So I wasn't ever aggressively against the idea of Watchmen becoming a movie (for what it's worth). I figured it was inevitable, given that it seemed like a sure bet. That's been especially true since 2002, when Spider-Man turned comic book movies into the new hot shit. I guess I was sort of agnostic, kind of non-committal, like John Hodgman, quoted in an article from last month's Wired: "The movie can be good as long as it appreciates that it has no reason to exist." Or like Joss Whedon, ibid.: "It's a comic book about pop culture as viewed through a comic book, so I didn't see the point of making a movie." I should point out that these two both qualify these cool stances, with Hodgman adding that Watchmen deserves an homage and that Snyder's role as director gave him some hope, and Joss Whedon adding that his first impression of the trailer was that it "looked phenomenal." But without much enthusiasm at all, there's Brian K. Vaughan, and I probably fall closest to his position: "I'll go see it if it doesn't feel like a betrayal of what Alan Moore wants. But it's like making a stage play of Citizen Kane. I guess it could be OK, but why? The medium is the message." Granted, any filmed adaptation of Watchmen is probably a "betrayal of what Alan Moore wants," but basically I think Vaughan's right.

So, okay. Make it a movie. I'm not the kind of person who's going to say that something like that is going to be a failure no matter what. But that's not to say that there's no such thing as hubris. Here's a synopsis (from the same article again) of Snyder's relationship to Watchmen, the movie:

In early 2006, Warner Bros. approached Snyder [to offer him the position of director on Watchmen] ... Snyder loved Watchmen, but his first impulse was to say no. Then he had a frightening thought: If he didn't make it and someone else did and messed it up, it would be his fault. He said yes.

This from the man who directed the Dawn of the Dead remake and 300! I admit that I might have missed something, because Watchmen ads around the city right now tout Snyder as "The visionary director of 300." Did something happen to that word, visionary? I didn't think it meant "stylish out the wazoo, may or may not give a damn about substance." Snyder is the kind of person who says the following about upcoming projects: "I just want to go crazy and shoot some shots that make me remember why movies are badass." Which, I guess that I was under the impression that if it was badassery you were shooting for, probably 300 would pretty much do you. This is the sort of director who chooses Bob Dylan for the opening credits of an action movie (surely there's a subtler, more artful, or less sentimental way to convey changing times than "The Times They Are A-Changin'"?) and "The Sound of Silence" for a funeral scene. He visually quotes (and indulgently abrogates) the old picture of the returned sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square—and this is only one among many. He thinks, having adapted the right-wing Frank Miller, he's a natural choice for the strongly left-leaning Moore (and let's remember his directorial debut was the at least formerly left-wing Dawn). His is not a delicate touch; sometimes, when I think of Zack Snyder, I think of what Flannery O'Connor once said: "to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures." That sounds like Snyder all over, but the crucial difference is that O'Connor wasn't herself insensate. But whatever. The point I'm making is that Snyder doesn't seem like the kind of director who really deserves to assume that some other person is so much likelier than he to screw up a particular movie, but that is what he thinks.

That said, Watchmen, the film, is pretty okay. And that's all. If all you read this for was a statement on whether the movie is viewable or not, I think it is. It isn't the morass of visual incomprehensibility that The Dark Knight was, and just as importantly, I didn't feel like any material was in there that threw off the pacing or the balance of the whole, also unlike that other movie. Of course, it's my opinion that this is because the strength of the original material shines through what's been changed and what's been lost in adaptation, so I'm not entirely unbiased. More reliably, several people of good taste, friends of mine, have watched the movie without having read the book, and they liked it, too. Apparently for some, it's a bit confusing. I understand that. For others (cf. Anthony Lane's New Yorker review), it's too sadistic and nihilistic. I get that, too. What's exciting to me is the spread of opinions on the film: Metacritic's rundown shows Roger Ebert and Andrew O'Hehir giving it great reviews, Richard Corliss and Keith Phipps giving it decent reviews, Owen Gleiberman, James Berardinelli, and Peter Travers giving it middling marks, and A.O. Scott, David Edelstein, and Anthony Lane tearing it up (to one extent or another). These are all reviewers I tend to read and respect, and they can't agree at all. That may be the sign of something worth seeing, regardless of how much you end up liking it, and I guess for someone like me who doesn't see movies in terms of stars or percentage scores or however many boxes of popcorn out of five, there really may not be a higher recommendation for Watchmen than that.

I'd suggest that if all you care about is the movie, you should get out now. Stop reading. What I have to say in the next part of this dissection has much more to do with where the movie misses the point, and I assure you, I spoil the hell out of book and film.

(image swiped shamelessly and unsubtly from